Political Padre: Raymundo Chávez Vázquez and Illegal Immigration
Raymundo Chávez Vázquez sticks a finger under the collar of his neatly pressed white, button-down shirt, giving himself a little fresh air. He rarely wears his priestly collar anymore. "It restricts my throat," he says in a scratchy baritone. "Sometimes I feel like I can't breathe with it on." With his goatee, wavy jet-black hair and rugged face, 38-year-old Father Raymundo looks like a dead ringer for Desperate Housewives bad boy Ricardo Antonio Chavira.
But he's a Mexican Catholic priest, committed to his church's social teaching that immigration is a universal human right. He believes that the church has a moral duty to protect immigrants, regardless of their legal status. "We try to help all people," he says. "Even if you're illegal and not Catholic, we should help. It's not a religious matter, it's a matter of justice. Making it a crime to help an immigrant goes against the teachings of Jesus Christ, who said we have to welcome the foreigner into our midst."
Two years ago, when the bishop of the Austin Diocese, Gregory Aymond, was looking around for a new parish priest to take over a scandal-ridden church, he knew he had a rare treasure in Father Raymundo. The young Mexican was handsome, charismatic, intelligent and dedicated.
Sure, there were potential problems. Father Raymundo's English was almost nonexistent. Unlike most immigrant priests, he had a tendency to speak openly about polemical topics such as homosexuality, war and, above all, immigration. Bishop Aymond shrugged off these concerns. "Sometimes all of us who are holding up the gospel message are construed as being too political," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "Jesus was political. He read the signs of the times and spoke the message of truth to the current situation. All of us as priests must do the same."
So where did the bishop send this talented pastor? Right into the heart of Aggieland — Bryan, Texas, to be exact. The activist priest landed in a Mexican-American parish called Santa Teresa, where his support for the church's social gospel rankled some members. At the time, the church was dominated by Mexican-American Tejanos, many of whom were three or four generations removed from the old country and had fully assimilated into mainstream life in the Brazos Valley. Many of these folks spoke little Spanish and found it hard to relate to a Mexican activist priest.
Santa Teresa had other problems as well. The church was reeling from a corruption scandal involving the former parish priest, Victor Robles, who is now serving time in prison for embezzling more than $110,000. "When I got here, the church was in pain," Father Raymundo says. "And it was gathering dust."
Almost as soon as he arrived at Santa Teresa, Father Raymundo set about reviving the church's Mexican roots. He drove down to his hometown in central Mexico in a pickup truck and returned with hand-crafted religious iconography, much of it made by indigenous artisans. He threw open Santa Teresa's doors to the latest — and largest — wave of immigrants, poultry plant and construction workers who felt welcome for the first time. He sent out lay missionaries to knock on doors and invite people to church.
Only six weeks into his tenure as parish priest in 2005, Father Raymundo met with a church member named Angelita García Alonzo. García Alonzo is a community gadfly, a devout Catholic whose liberal views often clashed with those of previous priests at Santa Teresa. At the time, she was trying to organize a protest of a speech on the Texas A&M campus by Samuel Huntington, a Harvard-trained scholar whose new book claimed that the very identity of Protestant America was threatened by the newest wave of Hispanic immigrants.
Huntington had been invited by a group of distinguished scholars at A&M to give a talk at the George Bush Presidential Library. A few faculty members were outraged but, as usual, García Alonzo had trouble getting a protest off the ground.
"When I told Father about it, he got mad," Alonzo says. "We showed him Huntington's literature and he decided to join the protest."
There was little time to mobilize, but Father Raymundo announced the protest at mass on Sunday. García Alonzo asked if they could carry the church's banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a sign of Hispanic pride. He said yes.
Father Raymundo claims that it wasn't a hard decision to join the protest, but it came at a difficult time. Not only was he struggling to learn a new language, he was also trying to strike a delicate balance between pleasing the longtime Tejano parishioners and ministering to the hundreds of immigrants who had started coming to his Spanish masses from all over the Brazos Valley.
Together with a few other church members, Father Raymundo caravanned over to the Bush Library and joined forces with a smattering of faculty members and students from Texas A&M. García Alonzo says that most Latino community leaders from the Hispanic Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens "were reluctant to join."
"Bryan-College Station is a conservative, mainstream place," she says. "Everyone here is reserved, you maintain the status quo, you don't make waves." Still, they managed to assemble a crowd of about 200 in a few days. Shortly before Huntington's speech began, the priest unbuttoned his stylish black jacket to reveal a T-shirt that stated, simply, "Mexican!"
As everyone knows, the U.S. Catholic Church is suffering from a severe shortage of homegrown priests, even as the Catholic population continues to grow. Few Americans — no matter how religious — are willing to commit to the celibate lifestyle the Church demands of its priests. Celibacy isn't a topic church officials relish discussing with reporters, but Father Raymundo doesn't mind. He admits that he struggles with sexuality, but believes that the Church's policy is the correct one.
"A priest's sexual and emotional life is kept under lock and key," he says. "We're spiritual eunuchs. It's a hard life because when you do something good, it seems like no one notices. One slipup, however, and everyone will find out." Father Raymundo says that he's learned to "sublimate, not repress" his sexuality with a two-hour long jog at the crack of dawn. "We priests have to attend to our bodies as well as our spirits," he says. One of the main sources of emotional comfort for a priest is his family, something that he must do without. "At least when you have the love of your family, it's like a warm blanket you can cling to," he says. "When you become a foreigner — as I am — that blanket is taken away."
For the Catholic Church, society's materialism — not the church doctrine of celibacy — is the main source of the decline in U.S.-born priests. According to Father Mike Sis, Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Austin, "Wealthy cultures are also materialistic and secular. Spiritual values are lower on people's scale of values." Countries that once exported priests — Sis cites Ireland as a prime example — now have to import them as they have grown richer.
Whatever the root cause, the result has been that the average age of a U.S. priest has been steadily climbing for decades. According to the National Federation of Priests' Councils, the average age of a priest has gone from 47 years in 1970 to 60 today. It will hit 65 within the next decade.
The Church has hit on a solution to the shortage: bring in young priests like Father Raymundo from the developing world. According to Father Sis, there are plenty of priests available — they just happen to be in places like Latin America, India and Nigeria. "They have a superabundance of priests and we have a shortage of priests," says Sis. "It's just a question of shifting personnel."
But shifting personnel also means shifting cultural paradigms, something that Sis saw firsthand in Bryan-College Station. Before he became Director of Vocations in 2005, Sis was a pastor at St. Mary's Church in College Station. When he started noticing a huge spike in immigration during the 1990s, he wanted to help. "We wanted to serve breakfast for day laborers," he says. "The work corner was about two blocks away from Santa Teresa, so we figured they were the logical church to ask. They didn't want to get involved. They didn't have any interest in participating."
Back then, Santa Teresa was a primarily Mexican-American parish that had developed its own Tex-Mex customs and traditions. It was a tightly knit community that looked out for itself, but didn't do much beyond the small Hispanic population of Bryan. Longtime church member Gloria Ramirez Quintero grew up in Bryan and remembers when she could recognize most of the people at the Sunday 10 o'clock mass. Now, she barely recognizes anyone at the church. "What happened to all of our people?" she asks. "About 90 percent of the people you talk to are from Mexico. It's kind of sad that we don't know anyone anymore."
Quintero's sentiment is echoed by many Tejanos, who suddenly see themselves as outsiders in a place that used to be a second home. Still, many are resolved to stay put. "They aren't going to run me off," Quintero says. "This is my church."
Santa Teresa had humble beginnings in Bryan's westside barrio. A traveling priest named Father Frank Urbanovsky — known as "Padre Panchito" — worked out of a mobile tent attached to a truck throughout the 1930s, ministering to the Brazos Valley's first wave of Spanish-speaking migrant farmworkers. In 1940, church members finally built a permanent, wooden structure.
The children of this generation eventually found a place in the cultural fabric of the Brazos Valley. Some opened up Tex-Mex restaurants. Others worked as unskilled laborers at Texas A&M. Church member Eddie Rodriguez opened up a body shop on one of the town's main drags. He was baptized at Santa Teresa in the 1940s and help knock down an old building to make way for the new church just blocks from his business. Victoria Martinez grew up across the street from the church in a family of 17 brothers and sisters. She counts her family as "among the first Hispanic settlers" in the region. She now lives a comfortable life operating a bed-and-breakfast in College Station.
When a new sanctuary was dedicated in 1979, the church received a congratulatory letter in Spanish and English from Phil Gramm, who was then a newly elected Democratic congressman and former economics professor at A&M.
None of this success came easily. Armando Alonzo, a historian at Texas A&M who studies Mexican immigration to Texas, says that the first immigrants to the Brazos Valley in the 1920s worked as sharecroppers and were "treated like peons." Hispanic children went to segregated schools where they were punished for speaking Spanish. Hispanic workers at Texas A&M — custodians, food service and construction workers — needed a special "certification of identification" to be on campus. The certificate stated that "no householder, department, contractor or individual will employ any Negro or Mexican in any capacity whatsoever on the college campus unless they have this certificate."
As the second generation of Mexican immigrants improved its status, it also improved the church, erecting new buildings and buying up land in the old barrio. As these families became more Americanized, English became the predominant language of the church elders. Many of them now proudly boast of their deep roots in Brazos County.
García Alonzo — herself a Mexican-American from the Rio Grande Valley — has struggled with many of her brethren over the changes at Santa Teresa. "The longtime Hispanics felt marginalized by Father Raymundo at first," she says. "The church has been around since the 1940s and these people feel as American as apple pie. Some have been around for four generations and feel like they own the church."
Many of the old-timers have left Santa Teresa for other parishes. Bryan's Catholic churches were originally organized along national or ethnic lines. Santa Teresa is the town's only traditionally Hispanic church, but many of the Tejanos now attend the traditionally Italian church, St. Anthony's, or the Polish and Czech church, St. Joseph's. Gloria Quintero estimates that some 300 people have left the church because of Father Raymundo.
Some of the people who have left the church declined to comment on the record about why they left. Many families are split, with some members continuing to stick it out. Off the record, they cite a perceived hostility on the part of Father Raymundo toward Hispanics who've lost their Spanish. Others, like Quintero, have stayed but made it clear that they want to see changes.
One of the main objections to Father Raymundo stems from his activism on immigration. García Alonzo helped start a branch of the Catholic Church's Justice for Immigrants Campaign at Santa Teresa shortly after the priest arrived. The campaign works for comprehensive immigration reform, emphasizing the legalization of undocumented workers already here. Father Raymundo admits it's not a popular position and the campaign has caused him some problems. "People think it's politics," he says. "It's not politics. It's social justice — the application of the word of God to the problems of the people."
But people like Quintero don't understand the priest's activism. "If they don't like the way things are running here, maybe they should go back to Mexico," she says. "Mexico wouldn't change its laws for us."
Like many other parishioners, García Alonzo wasn't too involved in the church before Father Raymundo arrived. She says that she and her husband went to the church on and off through the years, but it wasn't their home parish.
Like other parishioners, she was disgusted by the behavior of the previous priest, Victor Robles. His demeanor towards immigrants was condescending. "He would raise his voice at the immigrants like they were little children," she says.
By all accounts, Robles ran the church as if it were his own personal fiefdom. The oldest — and perhaps most powerful — church group at Santa Teresa is a group of Hispanic ladies known as the Guadalupanas. The Guadalupanas do charity work and sell religious artifacts. They also wield power behind the scenes. There are three women named Mary in the Guadalupanas, and each one of them has a story to tell about Father Robles. Each one claims he mistreated them and stole money from the church when he thought they weren't looking.
Still, it was 14 years before Father Robles was ousted from the church. The bishop called for an audit and discovered that the priest had been skimming money from a fund collected during weddings and funerals, to pay his credit card bills. In 2004, he was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to reimburse the Church for $110,000.
The English mass at 10 a.m. on Sundays is barely half full these days, and Father Raymundo often relies on an English-speaking deacon to deliver the homily. It's pretty standard fare for a mass. Stand, sit, kneel, take communion.
Two hours later, however, the scene at the church changes dramatically. The 12:30 Spanish mass is overflowing with immigrants. Some are vaqueros who hold their stiff cowboy hats in their hands during the service. There are young mothers whose kids roll around on the floor while they try to catch a glimpse of the handsome priest. All are in rapt attention as Father Raymundo orchestrates the mass.
It's standing room only in the lobby and in the halls leading to church offices. Approximately 1,500 people are crammed into a space meant for hundreds fewer. When it comes time to kneel, a group of kids in oversized T-shirts and baggy jeans with spiky, dyed hair finds a little space outside a hall leading to the bathroom. They cross themselves and bow their heads as Father Raymundo leads the congregation in prayer.
During the homily — the sermon — Father Raymundo steps down from the pulpit, carrying an open Bible. He starts to preach, applying Bible verses to troubled relationships, problems on the job and topics such as domestic violence and gender roles. He walks up and down the aisle, working the crowd and feeding off its energy. Like an evangelical preacher, he can thunder his message one minute and then change to a whisper to emphasize a particular point.
After mass, Father Raymundo stands in his white robes near the street in the sweltering central Texas sun. As the churchgoers file out, he patiently blesses the objects they bring to him. They crowd around him like he's a star quarterback who's just won a big game.
In a sense, Father Raymundo wasn't that different from any other Mexican immigrant when he arrived in the United States seven years ago. He was a young man on his own who barely spoke a word of English. ("My English is still broken," he admits in Spanish, which he still prefers for interviews.)
At the time, he didn't know much about politics, immigration laws or the deep racial divisions in Texas. He only knew he wanted to preach the Word of God in his native Spanish. "I didn't want to come here, to be perfectly honest," he says. "I love my country. I love my family. I always imagined myself as a priest on a Mexican ranch, ministering to rural people."
In a country deeply divided between rich and poor, Father Raymundo grew up in a large, middle-class household in the central Mexican town of Celaya. His father was a farmer who also ran a successful taxi business in the city. Celaya didn't have the rampant violence and drug trade of many Mexican cities, but the stark division between the haves and have-nots made an early impression on him.
"Latin America has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world," he says. "And yet the vast majority of the population is Catholic. What's going on? It means that we're not living like good Christians."
Father Raymundo isn't afraid to take this social gospel into the church. "Sure," he says, "it's a message people don't want to hear. When you start talking about economics, no one wants to listen to you. But the same thing happened to the prophets. Jesus Christ preached a gospel that the powerful didn't want to hear. And what happened? He got the death penalty."
Father Raymundo has never lacked in the self-assurance department. He decided that he wanted to be a priest at age six. He started seminary at age 13. (Most U.S. priests begin seminary during or after college.) Out of seminary, his first job as a priest was to minister to a drug-infested barrio in Mexico City called La Merced, where pimps were known to harass Catholic priests who tried to get prostitutes off the streets and into church.
"Fortunately, they never threatened me," he says. "Maybe it's because I've never looked like a normal priest with my goatee and my looks. The pimps probably thought I was one of the customers, so they left me alone."
He describes this first mission as "painful." Some of the prostitutes had AIDS. Some of them came to church after being beaten up by their pimps. Still, he felt like he was doing God's work in his native land.
When an invitation came to visit the United States, he wasn't sure he wanted to come — even for a vacation. In the end, though, he accepted. He thought his stay in this country wouldn't last long. "Then a bishop told me there weren't enough priests to minister to the immigrants," he said. "I thought I would only be there for a month and then go back home."
Before he knew it, though, he had settled in Tyler, Texas, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It was no longer a vacation, but he enjoyed it. He worked as an assistant for an Anglo priest, and there were just a few Hispanics. He felt welcomed by Anglos. "I wanted to hide under the altar, my English was so bad," he says. "It was embarrassing."
At this point, Father Raymundo wasn't sure what he was doing in the United States, especially in the affluent, English-speaking parish he served. "Then one night," he says, "I woke up in the middle of the night and said, 'What the devil — excuse my language — am I doing here? Why am I in the United States?' I still don't really know why, but here I am. You can't escape from God even when you want to. God won't let me escape."
The bishop wouldn't let him escape either. After a brief stint in Nacogdoches — a town he describes as "friendly and quaint" — he landed in Bryan in 2005. His initial experience in the Brazos Valley, he says, "was an eye-opener." He saw immigrants deported back to Mexico for minor traffic violations. He saw well-known contractors refuse to pay immigrants for a day's work. He saw workers getting paid two to three dollars below minimum wage.
The abuses were pretty typical for a growing town with a booming immigrant population. The exploitation of day laborers in Bryan wasn't much worse than in other cities in Texas. The main difference was that immigrants in Aggieland had no one to turn to, except for the occasional do-gooder who came in from Austin or Houston.
Austin-based immigrants' rights lawyer Alan Cooper was one of the first people to reach out to Father Raymundo. The first time Cooper met him, he wasn't sure what kind of a reception he would get. Cooper is a Quaker. "When I told him that I was a Quaker," he says, "Father Raymundo made it clear that if I was here to help workers, I was welcome in his church."
Cooper recalls Father Raymundo hosting an immigrants' rights meeting in his parsonage when the power got cut off. There were 25 people in the building and without hesitating, Father Raymundo flipped his cell phone open to shed light on the meeting. "The situation in Bryan is different from other cities in Texas," Cooper says. "In Houston or Austin, there are social services or nonprofits immigrants can turn to. They don't have that in Bryan."
When CPS took custody of Pedro and Juana's youngest child last summer, they weren't sure what to do. Juana was eight months pregnant with her seventh child when her 18-month-old got sick. The couple took the infant to a clinic and got a prescription for his cough. After a couple of days of treatment, Pedro Jr. wasn't getting any better.
Finally, the couple decided to take their child to the emergency room. Juana says that a doctor wanted to do blood work while she waited in the lobby. A couple of hours later, a Spanish-speaking police officer met her in the emergency room. He wanted permission to search Pedro and Juana's trailer on the outskirts of Bryan. Pedro says that the cop was convinced they had drugs. "I've never even tasted a beer," says Juana. "I had no idea what was going on."
Juana says that the hospital had found something — she still isn't sure what — in the child's blood that convinced the doctors that the couple was drugging their children. Pedro, a carpenter from San Luis Potosí, sat in disbelief as the cop rifled through their mobile home. Juana says that the cop interrogated her so harshly that she almost passed out and had to be hospitalized. When Juana came to, the same cop was promising to take away Pedro Jr. He called her a "pendeja" and told her CPS was going to take away "the one in her belly" as well.
After CPS took custody of Juana's newborn, the couple turned to Santa Teresa for help. García Alonzo and Father Raymundo helped them find a lawyer and get into counseling with a Spanish-speaking psychologist. García Alonzo says that the couple probably misread the label on the prescription and gave the child too much of the medicine, which contained codeine.
García Alonzo thinks it was a misunderstanding that could have been avoided had there been more communication between the clinic, the hospital and the couple. After months of court dates and counseling sessions, it appears that Pedro and Juana's two youngest children will be returned to them. A court has ordered CPS to transition the children back to their home within six weeks.
The couple isn't sure they could have made it through the ordeal without the help of Santa Teresa's. The parish played an instrumental role in getting the children into the custody of family friends who allow the parents to visit the children as much as they want.
Father Raymundo has paid a price for sticking up for immigrants like Pedro and Juana. He says that his life has been threatened twice, both times by Mexican-Americans. One time, a pickup swerved to hit him on the street. "They told me to go back to Mexico with the rest of the 'wetbacks,'" he says.
That's when he learned to be proud of the term. "I'm proud of being called a wetback because everyone knows that we wetbacks work as hard as anyone else in this country."
It's a Sunday night and Father Raymundo is getting ready for his weekly radio show, La Voz Católica, an hour-long program cohosted with a Texas A&M Spanish professor who goes by the name of El Maestro. This is Father Raymundo's time to extend his influence beyond the church and to take calls from the Hispanic community. Each week, he examines a different topic. Sometimes it's a pretty basic explanation of Catholic dogma, but sometimes the issues aren't so black and white.
"We talk about everything on the show," he says. "It's all on the table. We talk about condoms. What does the word of God say about condoms? We talk about homosexuality. What does the word of God say about homosexuality?"
And what, exactly, does the word of God say about gays? Well, here things get complicated. Father Raymundo wants his listeners to condemn homophobia, which he thinks is a serious problem in the Latino community. He wants them to reject machismo in all its forms. He thinks the church should welcome gays with open arms. But, he says, "according to the Church, homosexuality is wrong. The Church is very clear about it. The church invites the homosexual to not practice his or her sexuality."
He treads a fine line on other issues as well. He calls himself a feminist but opposes women entering the priesthood.
On this particular Sunday, Father Raymundo's guest on the show is the new police chief of Bryan, Ty Morrow. He's the first black police chief in Bryan's history and, like Father Raymundo, he's having to learn on the fly.
When they take to the airwaves, Father Raymundo pushes Morrow to explain how and why an immigrant can get deported. They communicate through a couple of translators and the conversation is sometimes awkward. The Chief seems a little nervous and assures him that immigrants won't be deported for traffic violations. Still, at one point, Morrow tells Father Raymundo that immigrants who get arrested should put the matter "in the Lord's hands and pray to God" that they don't get deported.
Father Raymundo makes a few jokes at the Chief's expense, saying that he has to learn to eat really spicy mole if he wants to get along with the Latino community.
Afterwards, García Alonzo appears a little flustered that Father Raymundo didn't challenge Morrow's answers. She wanted the Chief to explain why the police often classify random groups of young Latino men as a gang. She confronts the Chief after the show. The Chief defends his department's tactics, but also promises to work on communication between the police department and the Latino community.
"If we want things to improve," he says, "I need you to talk to me. I need to know what issues affect your community." He gives out a direct number to his desk on the air and invites listeners to call him.
García Alonzo and Father Raymundo often clash on church teachings on other issues. He supports protests of Planned Parenthood and preaches against abortion on the radio. This frustrates García Alonzo, who volunteers full-time for the church but is pro-choice. Father Raymundo calls their relationship "amor apache," which might best be translated as "tough love." "She's very sincere," Father Raymundo says. "Sometimes we clash, but we love each other."
When the immigration debate heated up in the spring of 2006, Father Raymundo and García Alonzo planned another protest. At the time, Congress was considering a provision of immigration reform that would have made it a crime to provide aid to an illegal immigrant. Protestors in big cities waved Mexican flags and carried pro-Mexico banners. In Bryan, Latino community groups wanted marchers to wear American colors and carry American flags.
"Father Raymundo settled it," García Alonzo says. He declared that there would be no Mexican or American flags at their march. Every single person would be dressed in white.
According to García Alonzo, city officials in Bryan weren't impressed with Father Raymundo's diplomacy. They wouldn't let protestors use central streets. García Alonzo says that they were told that Main Street was only "for the taxpayers." They were routed through residential streets before they rallied at city hall.
Father Raymundo says he sent notices to dozens of churches and only a few were even acknowledged. A few pastors privately voiced their support but thought it was too risky to join a protest. A few other pastors — including two Catholic priests — joined the protest, but most religious leaders simply ignored him.
Everyone, however, was surprised when 5,000 to 7,000 people turned up for the march. Alan Cooper was working in the area at the time and says that the protest "blew everyone's mind."
"It was the biggest march anyone had ever seen in Bryan," García Alonzo says.
Father Rafael, the other Mexican priest at Santa Teresa, remembers his seminary days with Father Raymundo in San Luis Potosí, where the two met. Both remember conditions in the Mexican seminary as harsh. "We were supposed to request permission to do everything," Father Rafael says. "Even to get medicine or leave the seminary for a couple of hours, we had to ask permission. They didn't allow us to express our own ideas."
Father Rafael says that he first experienced intellectual freedom in a Catholic church in Houston. "We could have a true conversation there," he says. "It was an opportunity to express ourselves. In Mexico, they told you what to think."
Father Raymundo is a little more conflicted. After all, he loves his country and wants to go back. "I learned this saying in English," he says. "There's no place like home." His dreams take him far from Aggieland, but he's found a unique voice at Santa Teresa. "There's a lot people here that think that I shouldn't express myself," he says, "but I've found freedom. And there are more opportunities for education."
He wants to pursue graduate studies in art history and study Italian, things he might do part-time at A&M. These days, his relationship with the Tejanos is improving. They are beginning to believe in Father Raymundo's message — one even called him "a miracle." A few are starting to come back from other parishes. And he's starting to adapt to Aggieland. His English is getting better. He occasionally eats out at Olive Garden after a hard day's work.
"I think the Hispanic community is looking for a real leader, a Martin Luther King, Jr. to serve Spanish speakers," he says. He leans back in his chair, contemplating the idea.
"I don't know if I'm a good leader," he says. "I'm a foreigner. I can't demand things from the government. But I can ask politely."
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